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“The one thing linking stand-up and a performance like this is that you have to totally commit to it, and always be in the moment”: Mark Thomas on satirical play ‘England & Son’

One of the country’s best-known political comedians, Mark Thomas has a long history of campaigning for social justice and holding politicians to account. His Channel 4 show, The Mark Thomas Comedy Project, was a prime example of this, and his commitment to these causes has remained steadfast over the years.

Now, he’s boldly ventured into the realm of theatre with a play specially written for him by Ed Edwards, a production that garnered awards and received glowing 5-star reviews during its debut in Edinburgh. In November, Mark is set to grace Sheffield with his presence ‘England & Son’. Intrigued to learn more, we enlisted the expertise of comedy connoisseur and theatre veteran Mark Perkins to delve into the details.

Mark Thomas

Photo: Steve Ullathorne

We’re used to seeing you perform stand-up comedy, so how did you come to be starring in this new play?
Well, it is a play written by Ed Edwards, specifically for me. I’d been to see his play in Edinburgh in 2018, The Political History of Crack and Smack, and as I was walking out, I turned to my mate and said, “That was amazing.” A voice behind me said, “I wrote that.” I turned around and it was Ed Edwards. We just chatted and got on from there like a house on fire. We kept in touch and every time we met, we agreed we had to work together, but we were both so busy. We’d talked about it for so long that we eventually said, “Let’s just get on with it.”

How did the collaborative process work?
Ed would write a narrative, all based on true stories. I’d read the story, then get up and improvise it. He’d then add in bits that I’d contributed and note which bits I’d skipped or altered. He eventually came back with this amazing show, England & Sons. It’s about so many things. It’s about the British Empire, domestic violence, addiction, failed chances, all sorts of things.

One of the things it draws on is both our childhoods and Ed’s time in prison. He’s a recovering addict. He runs filmmaking workshops in Manchester, in Ancoats, and I’ve been helping him out. I love doing comedy workshops. I’ve actually just finished doing one, which is why I’m exhausted. Today we were looking at the five-act structure of a play. Working with a group of recovering addicts and saying, “If this is your story, what would be in each act?” It’s remarkable being in such a profoundly and brutally honest room. I suppose it’s all linked into the show, and it’s very much informed us, but not what the show is based on. We’re writing a 20-minute companion piece with the addicts in recovery.  I feel privileged to work with them. They make their own films with Ed, which sometimes get out to film festivals. It has really made a difference to the people involved, too. A couple of them have gone to film school, another to college to do a writing course.

I just care about creating interesting, new work that’s challenging for the audience, and which challenges and excites me. There’s no point in doing this if you don’t challenge yourself.

You’ve just finished performing England & Son for the first time in Edinburgh. How was that experience? How far removed is it from doing stand-up?
It’s totally different from stand-up and requires a different discipline. I get to play different characters, and I get to narrate, tell stories, talk directly to the audience, do some acting, but the one thing linking stand-up and a performance like this is that you have to totally commit to it, and always be in the moment. You cannot take your foot off the pedal. It got excellent reviews and seemed to win all the awards, to the point where we got accused of being greedy. We’re now touring it, and we’re in Sheffield at the Crucible Playhouse on November 28th and 29th.

I believe you started off acting near here, at Bretton Hall College near Wakefield, so you’re returning to your Yorkshire performing roots.
Yes, I was the first person in my family to go to university and it was drama school. It was so thrilling to be with a like-minded group of people, but also be educated at the same time. I loved the fact that you could do a formal class in the day, analyse a play, or learn stage management skills, and in the evening you could go to a show performed by a final-year student. I worked from 9am to 10pm, but it didn’t feel like work. It was one big, wonderful adventure. That was where I started doing stand-up. I’d write with a group of mates on one day, and then go to the Red Shed in Wakefield to perform with them the next day. We’d often fundraise for the miners. I’d wanted to do stand-up since I was 16, and I realised, here was an opportunity to actually go and do it in a socialist club.

Mark Thomas

Photo: Alex Brenner

You’ve been doing what political comedy for a long time now. Would you say politics is totally different today than when you first started performing?
In many ways yes, but in many ways no. The centre ground of mainstream politics shifts and moves. I’ve always thought of the Tories as an extremist party, but now it’s a far-right party. Obviously, Brexit is a major thing, but politics isn’t something that just nips around in a circular struggle; there’s a linear movement, as people’s lives materially improve or decline. What we have seen is a decline in living standards and our ability to organise, protest and fight back.

With regards to what I do, I just care about creating interesting, new work that’s challenging for the audience, and which challenges and excites me. There’s no point in doing this if you don’t challenge yourself. If it gets boring, I might as well have had a proper job. In fact, avoiding having a proper job takes much more work than you think it does. I’ve been working and mentoring with some Palestinian comics, to the point where now there’s a West Bank comedy circuit. Also, we’re lining up to do comedy workshops in Sierra Leone with street kids. All these things are really thrilling and exciting. I love it. Why would I want to stop? I’m 60 now and could hopefully carry on until I get my state pension and beyond, although I have got my London senior bus pass now.

We don’t get ours here in Sheffield until we’re 66.
Ah, but you lived through the Blunkett years, so you’ve had your good times.

England & Son comes to the Playhouse on 28-29 November. Tickets available from sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.




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